Hugh Fleetwood's Self Portrait (partial, 2005/6). Used with the permission of the artist.

Civilized Murders: An Interview with Author and Artist Hugh Fleetwood

Hugh Fleetwood’s chilling and dark mysteries deal with psychologically-damaged characters whose actions are usually the result of some personality disorder often undisclosed to everyone but the reader.

British author and painter Hugh Fleetwood’s life began at a pivotal moment, waiting at a train station in Munich. After many spells in different places around the world, the writer, on a whim, decided on a train leaving for Florence, Italy, with the resolve of never going back home to England again. The rash decision proved fortuitous; upon arriving in Italy, Fleetwood would soon experience an entire world of new discovery opening up to him in a way it never could have anywhere else. Landing a job teaching English got him by while he diligently worked away at a novel he hoped to soon publish.

Fleetwood would indeed manage to have his first novel published after a few years (A Painter of Flowers). But it wasn’t until the publication of his second work, The Girl Who Passed for Normal (1973), that Fleetwood really came into his own as a writer of significance. His novel was at once puzzling and deeply insightful, a bone-chilling descent into the dark, nethermost regions of the mind which dealt with parental obsession, fractured identity, and disintegrating sanities taking place in the affluence of bourgeoisie society. The Girl Who Passed for Normal would go on to win the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1974, granting the writer wider notice and significant returns on his novel, which would enable him to continue his work in fiction.

Fleetwood’s material more often than not deals with psychologically-damaged characters, ones whose actions are usually the result of some personality disorder often undisclosed to everyone but the reader. Mired in pitch-black humour, his stories are peopled with characters afflicted with moral dilemmas; we see the sordid humour in their personal and professional lapses, and our primary focus is on how they manage to manoeuvre their way out of their predicaments.

In The Girl Who Passed for Normal, we often know the protagonist, Barbara, is working against her better judgement when she decides to continue tutoring for a dysfunctional family who harbour seemingly murderous tendencies. Yet, the thrill lies in watching people rectify their blunders in judgement, which usually happens with little success. The Order of Death, possibly Fleetwood’s most known work to North Americans (thanks to a film version with Harvey Keitel and John Lydon of the Sex Pistols in the leads), deals with the amoral influence that a stranger has on an already corrupt police officer. He outlines both the danger and comedy of allowing outside forces to invade personal space.

Fleetwood has professed his admiration for the work of Agatha Christie, finding inspiration in her perfectly crafted plots of murder and deception. But the author excels at building characters, giving them equal shadings of sympathy and malice, which further complicates their crimes in the name of passion, greed, or simply madness. These characterizations, deeply-rooted in Freudian logic, were particularly unique and pioneering in the author’s early days. They leaned more toward the tonal emotional shifts of Flannery O’Connor than they did the laid-bare horror of Stephen King and they opened up new dimensions of story-telling that would provide Fleetwood’s characters with nuance and depth and his readers with plenty of gristle to chew on.

The Order of Death, a disturbing exploration into dangerous symbiotic relationships, caught the attention of a few studio execs in Italy who wished to turn the novel into a film. On judgement of the film alone, one gets the sense that it was Fleetwood’s ability to craft a narrative that was pushed along by the at once ambiguous and volatile emotions of his characters that made his work compelling and therefore fertile ground for cinema.

Fleetwood’s paintings explore a similar terrain of emotional confusion. They seem to pull at once from an archaic sense of mystery and a new wave of contemporary expression. But while his written works exhibit a deeply intricate pattern of logic in his narratives of delusion and murder, Fleetwood’s artwork opts for enigma painted in bold, expressive colours. His literary characters may hide their true purposes behind the rhetoric of fear and desire, but there is no hiding for the people who inhabit the world of his paintings. They are laid bare for every pain, lust, and emotional tumult reflected by the mirroring viewer.

Recently, Faber & Faber reissued Fleetwood’s novels. Many of these titles have been out-of-print for years. These works reintroduce the fashions of literature that in recent years have become obscured by the weight of popular fiction that line the top seller shelves of chain bookstores nationwide. Though his stories reach nowhere near the sensationalized atrocities found in the works of a new generation of novelists, or the silly exploits of religious and political intrigue of an author like Dan Brown, Fleetwood’s fiction remains significant.

Outside, the world may be tuned anew by the onslaught of digital revolutions, social media and a rampant culture of celebrity. But the ancient and primal fears of our internal worlds are untouched by the inevitable societal shifts. And it is in here, in a universe at once unholy and sanctified, that Fleetwood puts pen to paper.

Please discuss your life when you moved to Italy. You seemed to find and develop your artistic sensibilities there. How did you begin in the visual arts and then become a novelist?

I painted from an early age, and encouraged by an art teacher when I was at school, wanted to go to on to Art College. But in my last year at school that teacher went off to the States on some sort of exchange deal, and was replaced by an American who disliked me and I disliked, and he put me off the idea of continuing with any formal art education. Though it is also true that by the time I was 18 I was desperate to get out of England, that I found stultifying, smug and obsessed with class, so I may not have gone on to college even if my original teacher hadn’t left. I liked the idea of living abroad and becoming “a writer”, having started writing when I was around 16: poetry mostly to begin with, then short stories and a couple of novels that I knew weren’t good enough to be published, on the other hand weren’t totally bad.

In any event, once I had finished school I went off to Paris for six months, not to become a writer, but partly to learn French and mostly to go to the movies three times a day, and catch up on my cinematic education. (Paris in those days was amazing for film; if you were diligent you could see the complete works of Sergei Eisentein, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Hitchcock, Renoir — everyone, anyone — within a few weeks.)

At the end of six months my parents persuaded me to come back to England and try to be “sensible” at least until I was 21. And since they had funded my Paris stay, I agreed. I enrolled in law school, which I hated with a passion, but put up with because it meant I could at least live in London. I stuck it out precisely ’till I was 21, becoming more and more depressed; eight days after my 21st birthday I left England again — and this time forever, I told myself (I was on my own financially, now).

I went initially to Munich, since I had met a Bavarian publisher who said he would offer me some sort of job if I came to Germany for a few months first to learn the language. (The summer before my departure I had worked in a bookshop in London to save enough money to get me through those first months abroad.) But I found Munich cold and expensive and realized my savings wouldn’t last even a few weeks, let alone months. So after three days, faced with the prospect of having to crawl back to England with my tail between my legs, I went to the station, and saw that the following morning at eight there was a train leaving for Florence. I had never been to Italy, and didn’t speak a word of Italian, but thought oh what the hell.

I bought a ticket immediately; left the next day; and that evening arrived in Florence, where it was still summer, and I felt immediately at ease. I found a very cheap pensione; enrolled in a course at the university to learn Italian; and stayed in Florence writing another novel and going to every museum and church in town… until I completely ran out of money. I thought the only thing I could do was teach English, but there were so many foreigners in Florence the competition was too great; so I hitch-hiked down to Rome with an American girl I had met, who knew a boy with an apartment in the city who said he would put us up for a few days if she slept with him.

Since she liked him and was aiming to sleep with him anyway, she agreed. The day after our arrival I set off intending to trawl round the language schools in Rome asking if they needed teachers. The first place I went to I was told no, but was advised to try another school a couple of streets away. There, I was shown into the office of the directrice, and she immediately said yes and asked when I wanted to start, and did I need an advance? And since I had just over a pound left in the world, I nodded; whereupon she opened her handbag and gave me eighty thousand lire; back then a month’s average wage in Italy. I was a total stranger…That same day I found a place of my own to live in.

I worked for the language school for just over four years; I had told myself I had to get a novel accepted for publication by the time I was 27, as I could not go on teaching English all my life. I used to think I would commit suicide if I didn’t succeed, though whether I would have… who knows?

While I was teaching I managed to get some poems published in a respected literary magazine of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, The Transatlantic Review, the owner and editor of which was an American called Joe McCrindle. In January 1971 Joe sent me a post card saying he was coming to Rome in March and asked if we could meet and have dinner together. I thought if I had a novel he would be the person to show it to, as he would know what to do with it. So I took some time off work, and started scribbling.

Vaguely basing my story on a messy affair I had been having and had recently finished, it came to me very easily, and unlike my earlier efforts, I felt that this probably was all right; it just seemed to work. I finished it the day before I met Joe for dinner; we got on well, and at the end of the meal I confessed what I had done. “Oh my God,” Joe said. But I asked him if he would read the manuscript, and the following day dropped it off at his hotel. He called me the day after that and said he had finished it — it was very short — and liked it; I asked him what I should do. He advised me to find an agent; I asked him if he knew one; he said yes, and took the manuscript back to London with him when he left Rome.

Ten days later I got a telegram from a publisher in London saying yes; and soon after another telegram from the Viking Press in New York. So I had made my deadline — or suicide line! — with a year to spare. I immediately quit my teaching job, and vowed I would never do another honest day’s work in my life. And forty two years later, I still haven’t had to!

But I got a tiny advance for that first book, which meant I quickly had to write another. And that, luckily, The Girl Who Passed for Normal, was quite successful; so enabling me both to stop worrying about money for a while, and to start painting again on a regular basis. And that combination of writing and painting, too, is a pattern I have pretty much managed to maintain over the years, though now I seem to have returned more to my first love, painting.

Whether I would have been able to live as either a writer or a painter if I had not gone to Italy is something else I cannot know; but I very, very much doubt it. As it has for so many northern Europeans, Italy opened my eyes to something I hadn’t seen before; both literally and figuratively it showed me the light.

Your novel, The Girl Who Passed For Normal, earned you a John Llewellyn Rhys Literary Prize. And then you found a niche writing many psychological mysteries. One thing I notice in a number of your works is the theme of moral ambiguity. In fact, a number of your characters seem to be model citizen types or middle class people who just have no business getting involved in sordid affairs (for example, the protagonist in A Picture of Innocence or the officer The Order of Death). Can you discuss this underlying theme in your work?

You’re right about my writing psychological mysteries. I think that was both because I liked the genre and, if it’s not the same thing, because it, or they, came to me naturally. I was first inspired to write by Pushkin’s novella, The Queen of Spades. That struck me when I first read it, still strikes me, as perfect. Then in my teens my great loves were Dostoevsky, Isherwood — above all the Berlin stories — Henry James and Agatha Christie, whom I have always thought a much better writer than literary critics generally give her credit for. Not just for her clever plotting and simple style, but for the fact that she did always present this solid middle-class world. But it was riddled with, rotten with, if you like, murder. And I believe it is this sub-text in her books that accounts for her colossal appeal. People like to think there is a ‘normal’ world; but they know at the same time that if you just scratch a little, beneath the surface… Of course in Christie’s world, order is always restored, whereas in real life it tends not to be, but that, too, is part of her appeal.

All that said, two books in particular showed me the type of book I wanted to write: Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer. And having a) been inspired to set off, and b) been as it were given vague directions as to which way I should travel, away I went. That I think accounts for the type of book I wrote, particularly at the beginning, and also to some extent answers your question about ‘normal’ people getting involved in sordid affairs.

Though I might quarrel with your use of the word ‘sordid’. I think that everyone to some extent comes to an accommodation with murder in his or her life, since — without wishing to get too heavy about it! — I do believe that all civilization is based on murder. We like to ignore the fact, and condemn murder as ‘wrong’; at the same time you only have to look at the history of the human race, and see how we got to where we are now. I suppose what my protagonists tend to do is have their eyes opened to this reality, find themselves forced not to ignore the truth; and then have to live, or try to, with the consequences. Sometimes they succeed.

And to go back to your former question for a moment: I think the smugness that I reacted against when I was a teenager in England in the ’50s and ’60s was accounted for by the fact that growing up in the immediate post World War II years, one had it drummed into one that the Nazis, i.e., the Germans, had been bad, and we, the English, had been, and by implication still were, good. But I never thought of the Nazis as being specifically German; they just seemed to me human — even in their inhumanity. And if they were human, and we were human…

To be a bit facile, and repeat myself: you could say that my books and stories on the whole are about people who have to come to terms with their inner Nazi; who have to accommodate The Beast.

And the fact that many of my protagonists are ‘artists’ of one sort or another? Probably because in a way all my writing is a form of autobiography, moral autobiography, let’s say, if not literal. And I have always believed that ‘artists’, who like to think they perceive the true nature of reality better than your average non-artist, not only make this accommodation with The Beast more willingly and cynically than most non-artists, but are a good deal more hypocritical than your average non-artist, in that they too often claim, or seem to, that they are not making any accommodation at all. Mind you: it is from their accommodation with murder, or at least death, that their art — that all art — springs. End of rant!

Your stories are not constructed like typical whodunits. In some cases, villains are presented upfront and their motivations remain a mystery. Your stories seem more concerned with what the character will do next. Clearly, your interests lie more in human behaviour and the intentions behind the actions are sometimes undisclosed or, rather, ambiguous. Would you agree that your writing tends to be character-driven and less plot-oriented?

Yes, I am more interested in character than plot. That is, I think the plot is a product of the characters, and not the other way round. It certainly should be, at any rate, since the plot of our lives tends to be the product of our characters. Of course accidents happen, but on the whole: we make (make up?) our own stories.

The Comedy of Danger

There is also an interesting theme of symbiotic relationships in your novels. This is most obvious in The Order of Death, but I think to some degree it happens in The Girl Passed for Normal (in the teacher-student relationship) and also in A Picture of Innocence (in this case, I believe from what I recall, the man’s obsession with a painting, so therefore a relationship between a man and a work of art, or what the figure of the angel in the art represents to him). Can you talk about the themes of symbiotic relationships in your work?

I suppose all relationships are to varying degree a combination of dependence and mutual benefit. So long as they are more or less equally balanced the relationship may be successful; if one party prevails too much over the other tears if not horrors are likely to ensue. To begin with, in The Girl Who Passed for Normal, Barbara, the teacher, would seem to have the upper hand over her pupil, Catherine. But by the end…

Every generation or two has its own preferred ‘illusion of reality’.

The same is certainly true of the relationship between Fred and Leo, in The Order of Death. The conflicts inherent in any symbiotic relationship — any relationship at all! — lie at the root of nearly every story, I would say. As for Dick’s relationship with the painting in A Picture of Innocence, I’m not sure I would call that symbiotic. Rather a sentimental attachment, obsession, on Dick’s part, that like so many such attachments leads in the end to disaster.

At times The Order of Death seems much like a black comedy. Was it ever meant to be (in some way) a satire on the police procedural?

It was never meant to be a satire; on the other hand I sometimes think that every one of my books is to a greater or less extent a black comedy. Like life?!

Tell us about how you were approached for adapting The Order of Death for film.

George Cosmatos read another of my novels, The Girl Who Passed for Normal, and saw on the jacket that I lived in Rome, as he did too, at the time. He looked in the Rome phone directory and strangely, I was the only Hugh Fleetwood listed! Anyway, he called, we met and got on well, and he said he loved The Girl Who Passed for Normal and wanted to make a film of it. But he had a contract with Carlo Ponti (Sophia Loren’s husband and one of the biggest producers in Italy in the ’50s and ’60s) and had a project lined up with him — Cassandra Crossing, if I recall. If that went ahead, then he wouldn’t be able to make The Girl Who Passed for Normal; if it didn’t, he would.

Fortunately for George, unfortunately for me, Ponti gave him the green light (and Cassandra went on to become a big commercial success.) So George passed on the option of The Girl Who Passed for Normal to a director friend, Nadia Werba, who got Susan Sarandon interested but couldn’t raise the finance. Nadia in turn recommended it to the producer / director team of Elda Ferri and Roberto Faenza. They took an option for a further year, during which time I didn’t hear a word from them; and at the end of the year, when someone else wanted an option, I said okay.

Just days after I signed this new agreement, Faenza called me to say they had a script, and finance, and were all ready to go! I had to explain what had happened, and asked why they hadn’t extended their option, or just asked me wait a week or two. As I would have done, happily. But he and Elda Ferri were very angry, and called me in for a meeting… to which I went thinking they might attack me physically. Instead, they just shouted at me, and said I had betrayed them and I repeated that if only they had told me. But if they were so keen on making a film of one of my books, I said, why not try this. And I produced from my pocket a copy of The Order of Death. I thought they would throw it in my face. Instead, they snatched it from me… and two days later called me to say, “Oh, we much prefer this!” And off we went.

The Order of Death has probably one of the most interesting pairing of leads for a film: Harvey Keitel and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) from the Sex Pistols. How did the casting for the film come about?

Faenza got Keitel interested from the start, and asked me to help cast the other lead. I interviewed a lot of young actors and strongly recommended Mark Rylance, who was just leaving drama school. Keitel came to London and met him, and was equally impressed. But at that stage Faenza said he needed a name, and as he was intrigued by the whole punk movement, thought of offering the part to John Lydon.

The Order of Death is what is known as a “Euro-pudding”. This basically refers to a film that usually consists of a multi-ethnic crew where the film is produced by one country, filmed in another, features a cast from a number of European countries and is distributed by another foreign company altogether. This can produce some very unique results for such a film. What was the process of getting together all these disparate elements (casting from different countries and cities, filming in Italy and New York, etc.) together for the film like?

It was all to do with finance — anything to get the pudding to rise! There was French money, hence, Nicole Garcia. Italian money, hence, the third lead, Leonard Mann, who had dual US/Italian nationality and probably quite a lot of Euro money. But I don’t know the details.

Have you interesting stories about the cast, John Lydon (from the Sex Pistols) and Harvey Keitel?

As far as I remember everyone got on all right. Though John Lydon occasionally got a little impatient with Harvey’s Method intensity. They were shooting a scene where Fred (Keitel’s character) was supposed to be drunk. So Keitel wanted to be drunk. After the fifth or sixth take, he asked Faenza if there could be a pause as he didn’t feel drunk to the right degree. At which Lydon snapped, “Ever tried acting, ‘Arve?”

When we were filming at Bard College in upstate New York, Harvey was rehearsing a scene with Sylvia Sidney, who was playing the grandmother of Lydon’s character. At a certain point, Harvey said, “Excuse me, Miss Sidney, I think you misread that line.” Whereupon the diminutive Sidney whacked Harvey round the face with her script, and said “Young man, I’ve been a star for forty years, and who the hell’s ever heard of you?” Admittedly Harvey’s career was somewhat in the doldrums at the time; nevertheless…

I went to the opera with John Lydon. He asked what I was doing one evening; I told him I was going to the Met; he said could he come along. He caused a bit of a scene in the interval when they wouldn’t let him into the champagne bar because he wasn’t wearing a tie, which was absurd as I wasn’t either and they had already let me in, but aside from that he was good as gold and loved the performance, or said he did. The only other thing that really struck me was that however late Lydon stayed out at night, and whatever substances he might have taken, he was always on time in the morning, always knew his lines, and was unfailingly professional, and indeed, pleasant.

Harvey Keitel, as you said, was not happy at the first pass at the script written by the director. What changes had you made to the script?

I really don’t remember. I think maybe I tried to bring it a little nearer to the book and make, so far as I could, the dialogue sound a little more American, and a little less Euro-pudding-esque

Can you go into some of the distribution problems that arose for this film? I understand that The Order of Death has a number of versions. The version deemed “too violent” and closer to a Giallo film is believed to be the full Italian cut. Other truncated versions are believed to be American and go under the title Copkiller or Corrupt. This has intrigued fans of the film for many years. Also, according to some sites, the film is now in the public domain, which adds even more mystery as to who has the full, uncut version.

I’m afraid I can’t help you on this. I knew that there were many different titles — Corrupt, Copkiller, The Order of Death (in the UK) — but had no idea there were different versions of the film. As to its being in the public domain, however: I doubt it. So far as I know the rights still belong to Jean Vigo International, Elda Ferri and Faenza’s production company. (Incidentally, Elda Ferri went on the produce Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, and was nominated for an Oscar.)

What are your thoughts on the film today? Do you feel it stayed true to the original source material? Is it a separate work altogether on its own? The film, by the way, is often referenced in a number of punk literature studies due to the involvement of Lydon of the Sex Pistols and also the fact that it features elements of the punk rock culture.

I haven’t seen the film since it first came out, so I can’t really comment. I thought I had a copy and would watch it before replying to you, but I must have loaned it to someone, so haven’t been able to. In general, however, I feel that books and films are two completely different creatures, and must be judged exclusively on their own merits — or failings. That said, I do remember, that right at the end of shooting (it was filmed pretty much in chronological order), Keitel announced that he couldn’t kill himself as suicide was “Un-American”. At which Faenza said that if Harvey wasn’t prepared to cut his own throat, he’d cut it for him.

You’ve been writing novels just a little over 40 years now. Recently, your works have been re-issued after a number of them having been out of print for so long. Do you feel that many of the ideas, themes, and events you were exploring in your novels of your earlier years carry over into present very easily? What do you think a novel like The Girl Who Passed for Normal (published in 1973) might have to say to someone who discovers it today?

I hope first of all that anyone coming to The Girl Who Passed for Normal now would find it a good read; that they’re interested enough to keep turning the pages, and at the end feel satisfied. And while some details of the story will have dated — those were pre-computer, pre-cell-phone, pre-internet days! — I hope the essential theme, the underlying let’s say moral text, will not have dated at all. And, as I mentioned with reference to Agatha Christie above, I do believe it is this sub-text in a book that ultimately keeps readers hooked, even if they’re not aware there is a sub-text.

And if this is true for The Girl Who Passed for Normal, I hope to a greater or lesser extent it is true for all my books. I don’t know if you know Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet”, in which a young writer attempts to discover the underlying theme of an older writer’s work, but re-reading my novels and stories prior to their recent re-publication, I was struck by two things. One, though I probably shouldn’t say this, was that I wasn’t at all ashamed of them; they might have had, might have, their defects, but essentially, they stand up, they’re not pretentious (I hope!) and they are on the whole pretty readable.

The other thing I saw was that, however different one was from another, they did all tend to share, well, the same figure in the carpet. Maybe it’s not for me to say what that is, and maybe the conscious figure is not the same as the subconscious figure that others might make out. But I do believe that a recurrent underlying theme of nearly all my books is the accommodation that ‘normal’ people make with murder, or at least death; and that this accommodation is the fertilizer that makes the flowers of civilization grow.

If you have time and care to download them on Kindle or something, there are two new stories in one of the volumes that has just been re-issued, The Man Who Went Down with His Ship, that summarize my views on the whole business of art and culture etc. Those particular stories are “L & I”, and “Why Are You Wearing My Daughter’s Earrings?” Though, in fact, practically all the stories in that volume are variations on the same theme.

Do you think that fiction has become the “bastard” of literature today? By that, I mean that a number of titles that currently sell are non-fiction, works that have been saturated in media frenzy after circulating in the headlines on TV or online. Otherwise, most fiction is published with the intent that it is “filmic”, that is, it is published (perhaps also written) in mind with the potential to be made into film in a bid for strong cross-market appeal. How has fiction changed since you first began as a novelist?

I am tempted to answer with a brief ‘No’ to your first question here, and ‘Not at all,’ to your last. There’s always been crap, in all branches of the arts, and always, if far less frequently, good stuff. Though it’s not always apparent which is which, and I suspect that more crap is mistaken for good stuff than good stuff is mistaken for crap.

But to elaborate a little more, and risk becoming pretentious, or at least showing my age, I do think that every generation or two has its own preferred ‘illusion of reality’. In the 16th, 17th centuries, I suppose the theatre was the most popular medium. That was replaced, little by little, by the novel, though of course plays didn’t suddenly stop being written. Then I would say that the novel started to lose ground to the cinema that has been the preferred medium of most people for the last hundred years. And quite soon, I suspect, the cinema’s star will start to fade — perhaps it has already started to — to be replaced by – who knows what?

Nevertheless, people will go on making movies; just as people go on writing dramas and comedies and novels. It is just that there is a golden age for each art form. I suppose ancient Greece and Elizabethan times for the theatre, the 19th century for novels and the opera, the 20th for cinema, etc., and practitioners of these arts will always look back to these golden ages, if not with regret. Why should we regret their passing? We still have their products — either to react against them, or in the hope of finding inspiration in them.

To conclude, however, and get back to your questions: yes, on reflection, I suspect that as we get ever further from the golden age, fiction as such will become more and more marginal, less and less relevant (as poetry has, I would suggest and, by and large, modern ‘classical’ music) to the general public. It won’t become a bastard; just an ever more forlorn orphan who may still do great things but is ever less likely to. And if it has changed since I first became a novelist, it’s just that the orphan, too, has grown a little older, and arguably still more forlorn. Or at least a little less cheerful!